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Beliefs about who isn’t innovative can be wrong

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The big idea: Challenging beliefs about what innovative people look and act like, where we find them, and how they do what they do.

The scenario: Crowe Horwath is one of the largest certified public accountant firms in the nation. Dave Jarrett joined it in 1975 and spent the next 20 years as an auditor and tax expert. Then he was asked to head a group working to develop innovative solutions for clients. The goal was to generate ideas that delivered better value to clients in profitable ways while enhancing the firm’s capabilities.

Jarrett’s challenge was daunting for many reasons. Perhaps the most obvious was that few people saw accounting and tax firms as hotbeds of creativity. Jarrett knew that he and his colleagues were generally stereotyped as linear thinkers, not well suited to developing creative ideas. They were also seen as risk avoiders — reluctant to try things that had not been proven successful out of fear of damaging important client relationships.

Yet Jarrett knew that innovation required a willingness to take some risks and pursue out of the box solutions. The group would need to learn to accept failures in the process — but failure, he knew, was expensive, with a working prototype often requiring an investment of up to $25,000 in software. He believed that clients ought to be involved much earlier in discussions about the value of new ideas, but his colleagues were reluctant to show clients unfinished work.

Jarrett wondered whether there were approaches that could surmount these obstacles.

The resolution: Jarrett brought in a set of tools, like those used by heralded design firms such as IDEO, and applied them to the innovation process at Crowe Horwath. He brought together multidisciplinary teams and used the knowledge in the room to brainstorm new solutions, then translated these quickly into simple, low cost prototypes. These prototypes often took the forms of simple storyboards, which he and his colleagues used to engage clients in a conversation about how well they served their needs. Based on this feedback, they would iterate toward what they hoped was a better solution and seek additional feedback as to whether they were on track.

The storyboard sessions, Jarrett emphasized, were never about trying to sell clients something: They were about understanding the extent to which the new approach created value for clients and soliciting information on how to improve it.

From a financial perspective, the cost reduction was significant compared to earlier practices. Furthermore, his colleagues discovered that clients enjoyed the conversations. As Jarrett explains it: “So now we’ve got a few hours invested in the storyboards and some guys going out and meeting with their clients. Even if the idea goes nowhere, there is always value in meeting with your client. Plus the client always feels valued because you cared to ask them what they thought. So there is never a downside to that. And we have saved ourselves a fortune.”

The lesson: Jarrett is just one person we’ve met from many walks of life — accountants, engineers and nurses, in addition to managers — who have demonstrated that many of our beliefs about who is innovative and who is not are just plain wrong. These people can bring as much innovative spirit to an organization as those in marketing and research and development, provided they are given the tools to break apart the black box in which we so often cast creative thinking.

— Jeanne Liedtka

Liedtka is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and co-author of “Designing for Growth, A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers.”

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